According to research from the OECD, poor mental health has, to date, been the most common cause of absence within the UK in 2017. This is always a difficult area of employment law for employers to navigate, and one fraught with emotion.

Most employers want to create an environment that fosters a good work ethic and supports staff members when they are struggling. However, employers are also concerned that this doesn’t impact on the profitability of the company; after all redundancy is hardly going to help any employee’s mental wellbeing.

Following recent guidance from ACAS on promoting positive mental health at work, this article aims to look at effective ways for small businesses to manage poor mental health without putting your business at risk.

Reasonable adjustments

An employee who suffers from poor mental health is potentially going to be covered by the Equality Act 2010 and be a protected employee. Therefore, an employer will have an obligation to consider reasonable adjustments.

Mind, a mental health charity, offer good examples of reasonable, inexpensive adjustments to consider for an employee who is struggling. These include:

  • Change of workspace e.g. quieter, more/less busy, dividing screens for privacy, more natural light for someone with seasonal depression
  • Changes to break times e.g. shorter more frequent breaks to escape pressure
  • Provision of quiet rooms
  • Return to work policies e.g. phased return to work, reduced hours gradually building up
  • Flexible working e.g. making time up if they come in late or allowing a better work life balance to help employees spend more time with loved ones
  • Light duties e.g. screening an employee’s calls to ensure they are not dealing with anything too stressful
  • Encouraging employees to go for a walk in their breaks
  • Providing additional support or training for the employee’s role

The larger the company, the more obligations an employer has to put in place reasonable adjustments.

Remember, a reasonable adjustment has to be just that – reasonable. This includes how cost effective it could be.

Talk to your employee

It is very easy to make assumptions of how mental health impacts on your employee, but have you talked to your employee directly to know this for sure?

Poor mental health impacts everyone differently. Having regular chats with staff who are struggling can create an atmosphere of trust. This in turn may encourage an employee to be more open, and reduce the likelihood of an employee going off on long term sick and thus costing the business money.

Train Managers

Ensuring that all managers have a consistent approach to mental health and its management is key. Lord McKenzie’s 2007 study found that most employees cited employer ignorance regarding mental health as the number one reason that they cannot get back into work.

A poorly trained manager who does not understand the complexities of mental health could cause an employee to go off on long term sick as a first response when their mental health deteriorates.

Training managers to listen and talk to their employees could reduce the likelihood of the employee going off sick.

Treating employees less favourably because of a mental health problem could be considered discrimination, so training for managers will also reduce the risk of an employee brining about a claim of discrimination at tribunal.

Consider an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)

While this may not be the cheapest option, EAPs provide an advice line for employees AND their families to talk through their problems.

EAPs are intended to help employees deal with personal problems that could negatively impact their performance at work. Many also offer support to people living within the employees household as the mental wellbeing of family can also impact on the employee’s mental wellbeing.

Get in touch if you would like some advice or costs relating to an EAP programme.


In a 12 month period as many as 3 in 10 employees will suffer from a mental health issue with absences for mental health costing UK businesses over £70 million per year. Proactively managing and implementing cost efficient early support systems could prevent employees from going off on long term sick. Fostering a supportive environment can also help reduce staff turnover, which again saves businesses money.

If you have an employee suffering from poor mental health and you want support in dealing with the situation call Opsium for advice.